Flying small airplanes is a fulfilling but serious hobby where 99.9% of the responsibility for safe flight rests with the pilot in command. Small, non threatening errors are made from time to time which almost always yield positive learning experiences.
Several years ago as newly licensed pilots Rebecca and I decided to fly to Denver to visit her brother, and sister-in-law. We were relatively inexperienced at long cross country flights but we nevertheless understood all the principles and took great care in planning our trip.
The monkey wrench in our plans was an item that we needed to pick up at the Billings, MT airport. Not only was it slightly off our original routing the item wouldn't be available until shortly before sunset. That meant the rest of our flight would be conducted on a moonless night across sparsely populated Wyoming - not to worry, we were both comfortable at night VFR flying.
After fueling up at Billings we launched to the south, our flight took us past some of America's most interesting treasures including Bighorn Canyon. In the waning evening light the Canyon's red walls glowed in perfect contrast to the deep, cold, blue waters below. Not long after we were enveloped in the smooth thick blackness of moonless night flight.
In the waning evening light the Canyon's red walls glowed in perfect contrast to the deep, cold, blue waters below.
Since we fueled up in Billings there would be no problem making Casper, WY. Meanwhile we knew that none of the airports 'behind' us would be selling fuel at that hour of the night, so Casper was something of a necessity. If we had to turn around prior to Casper we would have spent a cool lonely night at an airport waiting for the staff to show up the next morning, not my idea of a leisure trip done right.
As we pressed on we monitored the weather and everything was checking out, isolated T-storms with otherwise clear skies, nothing we couldn't handle in western skies with 100 mile night time visibility. About thirty miles from Casper we were cruising towards our fuel stop and then out of nowhere came a violent flash of lightning on the horizon. Hmmmm. That made me start thinking about the long cold night that we might spend somewhere at an airport behind us. After getting some updated weather we continued onward with the knowledge that those T-Storms were on the opposite side of the airport from us, and out of striking distance. Even though it was at a safe distance, seeing massive, repetitive flashes on the horizon from a small aircraft was plenty of encouragement to get on the ground and stay there.
The ladies at the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) in Casper were totally awesome, we rolled in there around 11pm, ate a chocolate chip cookie, and confirmed that the remaining one hour flight to Denver was completely blocked with a line of severe storms. Can you say hotel?
The alarm was blaring at 0445 the next morning. After rubbing eyes, a hot shower, steaming coffee, and an airport shuttle ride we were ready to rumble. The hop would be easy, launch from Casper, turn around a small extension of a mountain range then direct to Rocky Mountain Metro Airport, a busy private and business aviation airport in northwest Denver. Soon we were in the clutches of Denver approach control. Those people talk fast, like auctioneers moving product. The only difference is 'Denver Approach' is moving thousands of tons of aluminum and people through the sky, and the real challenge is coordinating fast moving jets with slow moving single engine airplanes such as ourselves.
Soon we were in the clutches of Denver approach control.
We managed to keep up with the fast pace of instructions and received our handoff to KBJC Rocky Mountain Metro Tower which had opened for the day mere minutes earlier. A kind female controller greeted us with a good morning and provided a straight in approach and landing clearance for runway 29L (there are parallel runways; left & right). Protocol is to read back all clearances to ensure that everyone is dancing to the same drumbeat. In my coffee driven early morning state of mind I cooly replied with my callsign, "Roger, clear to left runway two-nine land."
My embarrassment was immediate and I corrected myself on the radio with a brief apology, something about the time of day. She was one cool cat and acknowledged our readback while adding that she hadn't had her coffee yet and not to worry about the slip.
She was one cool cat and acknowledged our readback while adding that she hadn't had her coffee yet and not to worry about the slip.
In the years since I have regarded that trip as one of the more educational flying experiences I've had. Leaving late in the evening, unexpected weather, late hotel runs, and high traffic environments.
For me the real take-away is how considerate everyone was. From the FBOs in Billings and Casper, to the hotel van driver who didn't mind showing up at work a few minutes early to get us to the airport. Most of all perhaps was that lady controller whose reply was kind, somewhat humorous and in no way curt. It made a big impact on me, the mojo and unheralded karma that is present everywhere in aviation.